How to Sympathise with a Flawed Hero

Sympathise with  flawed heroOne of the most important requirements in writing a successful story is that we sympathise with the hero. The hero, in a typical tale, is the character through whom we chiefly experience events.

This does not mean that the hero has no flaws. Indeed, the flaw is what helps define the hero’s character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful action to swift and righteous action that helps him achieve his goal.

Yet, crafting a sympathetic hero has become increasingly difficult. A variety of scandals involving our politicians, military and religious leaders has served to soil our trust in the existence of unsullied, altruistic heroes.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc.

The notion of a flawed hero, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet. These tragic heroes are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes, in recent times, is noteworthy.

Dexter, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe.

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters pulled this off? Here are some suggestions:

We sympathise with a flawed hero because …

The hero finds himself in a situation of undeserved misfortune:

Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can ill afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay his bills.

The law-breaking hero is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to do this and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he outsmarts both the police and his criminal victims time and again.

The hero acts for a cause other than himself:

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Understanding the underlying motivation of these deeply flawed heroes helps soften our critique of them.

Summary

Understanding a character’s motivation, no matter how flawed, helps us to sympathise with his predicament.

6 thoughts on “How to Sympathise with a Flawed Hero

  1. Madeline Thompson

    The flawed hero – protagonist – is simply a more interesting character for viewers I think, for a variety of reasons. It seems to automatically add textural depth to a character because he or she is displaying a part of themselves we normally hide as a society; it also adds a lot more story territory to play with. The flawed hero is a sympathetic one because of that. Your comment on trying to create a clean-cut moral hero is almost impossible now, it seems like a fake creation. It is very difficult to define ‘morality’ because condoned immorality is almost a given now on a political level, and we absorb that on a daily basis through the news media. In most of these highly successful series, the ‘flawed character’ is actually trying to overcome that condoned immorality. It sounds a bit abstract but I think it resonates in many audiences on a gut level.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Quite right, Madeline. Flawed characters are intrinsically more interesting from a dramatic perspective. Not sure that it was always a fake creation though. Just an impossibly high moral one that few historical figures (Christ, Buddha, and so on) have achieved. What I think is true, however, is that modern fictional heroes do not even try to aspire to a higher moral standard based on actual figures – for reasons suggested in the article.

      Reply
  2. Gerhard Pistorius

    A pillar of morality ( what a great metaphor). I understand – it’s because we live in a ‘politically correct society’ that the line between right and wrong is blurred. You can’t have a option on anything without being called a radical. Maybe that is the motive of a good anti hero : he is determined to live by his moral code despite how people may view him.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Political correctness is an interesting topic. Peronally, I think it has buried us beneath an enormous mountain of prescriptive complications and restrictions that should otherwise be the voluntary behaviour of descent folks.

      Reply
  3. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting post. However it’s up for debate. I believe that our politicians, military and religious leaders serve as the hero’s call of action. If you were to write a story that takes place during the French revolution choose a point o view. Do you tell the story of the starving peasant who is influenced by Maximilian Robespierre or do you tell the story of a princess who was forced into marriage ( at 16 !) in a foreign country to a prince who’s rein was in crisis before he even became king. The environment of your hero defies there flaws and there motives.
    One series I highly recommend : The Americans ( cold war spy drama) .
    The heroes find them self in a situation of undeserved misfortune : Peak of Cold war
    The law-breaking heroes are smarter than the law-breakers around them: Highly trained Soviet spies.
    The hero acts for a cause other than himself: Richard wants to support his wife Elizabeth who wants to serve mother Russia. ( This series is the ultimate testimony of the terms and conditions of a marriage)

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      I get your point. However the point I’m making is that it’s hard to find believable clean-cut moral heroes in today’s world, given what we know about even out most ‘devout’ pillars of morality.

      Reply

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